Is Marriage like International Politics?

Happy wife, happy life.

-Some random married person

One of the nice things about my experience of getting married is that most people have really tried to be supportive and helpful during this stressful and scary time. People have given us lots of gifts to help us get started with life. They have often offered to help with wedding chores. They also tend to offer words of encouragement or to give me a bit of advice. I dig that, and I’m glad that I’m surrounded by people who care enough about me to try to help me out.

Sometimes, however, people offer a particular kind of advice that makes me raise my eyebrows. The kind of advice I’m referring to is the same kind of advice offered by “some random married person” in the quotation above: Happy wife, happy life.

I’ve heard this kind of advice from books and marriage counselors in addition to people I know directly, so it seems to be pretty popular. Moreover, the advice is not given exclusively to the groom. I’ve also heard brides-to-be receive a similar kind of advice.

Now, whoever happens to be dispensing this kind of advice always seems to have a I-know-what-marriage-is-like-and-you’ll-be-happy-you-followed-my-advice type tone about them. This tone along with their advice makes me wonder, “What is marriage like such that it generates comments like this? Of all of the comments/advice that could be given to newly weds, why is this comment the one that I seem to hear most often?”

Before trying to answer those questions, let me say a little more about how I interpret such advice in the first place. The advice, as far as I can tell, actually comes in two distinct, albeit related, versions. I can usually figure out which version of the advice I’m getting by paying attention to the tone with which the advice is uttered.

If the tone has a hint of resentment to it, then I’m hearing what I’ll call the “resentful-version” and the advice means something like “You really ought to try to please your partner because if you don’t, he/she will make your life miserable.” If the tone lacks resentment and instead simply sounds like some matter of fact advice, I know I’m getting the “prudence-version,” and take it to mean something like, “You really ought to try to please your partner because if you don’t, he/she will make your life less than maximally awesome.”

If these interpretations are correct, both versions of this advice, along with the frequency and tone with which they are given, suggest that marriage, a relationship that is supposedly one of the more intimate and loving relationships human beings can enter into, is in actuality a lot like international politics. Let me explain.

Some political theorists have characterized states as egoistic entities that are just looking out for their own interests. According to these theorists, any state will take territory or resources from other states if they can and if it furthers its goals without any real regard for the interests of the countries that are being smashed under its boot. This, of course, leads to lots of conflict among states.

Occasionally, however, the cost of fighting over resources is too high for all the states on the international scene. For example, country A may want country B’s oil, but may not be willing to fight country B’s military long enough to secure that resource. And country B may want country A’s gold mines, but may not be willing to deal with the economic sanctions from the international community if it took those mines. In situations like this, there is a kind of peace and stability between states, and a term has been invented to describe this kind of peace: “modus vivendi.”¹

The resentful-version of the marriage advice I’ve been getting seems to suggest that we should take this term that’s used to describe international political relations and use it to describe marital ones. Marriage, according to this advice, often requires a kind of modus vivendi. I would fight with my wife about X or frustrate one of her desires, but doing so is going to be too costly for me because it will lead to misery. The same is true for my wife. She would fight with me and/or frustrate my desires, but since the costs of fighting are too high, we reach a kind of stability.

So that’s how the resentful-version of the marriage advice I’ve received suggests that marriage is like international politics. What about the prudence-version of this advice? Well, the same political theorists who invented the term “modus vivendi” also have a theory about why alliances form among states. In keeping with their view of states as egoistic creatures, they explain the formulation of alliances as a kind of strategy used by states to further their own interests. States may even assist other states in achieving their goals, but at the end of the day, everyone is just hoping that their generosity will not go unnoticed and that they will be able to benefit somehow from their “altruism.”

Here again it seems that, according to the prudence-version of the advice I’ve been getting, the same dynamic that works between states works between married folk.² I might do a bit of extra cleaning before my wife gets home, but I only do this because I want to be able to go out with my buddies afterward. Country A may provide humanitarian assistance to country B, but only because doing so might make country B more amenable to certain politico-economic arrangements.³ The “happy wife, happy life” advice definitely points to a parallel here.

Both versions of the advice raise the following questions: Is this really how my marriage is supposed to work? When my wife and I are in disagreement, will we mostly “resolve” the disagreement by reaching a modus vivendi? In other words, will most of our disagreements be settled by both persons becoming so exhausted that they compromise or surrender all ground to the other just to avoid the stress of conflict? Is having the best possible life with my wife really just about performing some favors so that I can get something in return?

I really hope the answer to these questions is, “no.” I really hope that we can do better than a modus vivendi and an egoistic alliance. It would be really disappointing if marital relations had a lot in common with international relations. I don’t need more of those kinds of relations in my life. Watching the news gives me more than my fill of egoistic states and/or people screwing each other over, reaching a brief ceasefire, and continuing the conflict once its convenience again.

So far, I’ve just said why I think the “happy wife, happy life” advice means that marriage is a lot like international politics and I’ve said that I hope that that is not true. I have not, however, answered the following questions: Have I misinterpreted the “happy wife, happy life” advice that I’ve been given? If not, what exactly is my problem with a modus vivendi marriage? Is there really a problem at all? Am I just being naive here? These are questions that I will have to answer next time.


1. I first encountered this term in John Rawls’ The Law of Peoples. Rawls contrasts the peace achieved via modus vivendi with a stability that is reached because states respect each other’s interests.

2. I’m not really committed to political realism, the view that states only act in their own self-interest. I’m actually persuaded by some of the arguments that suggest that this is not the case. Even if political realism is false, it would be interesting if it turned out that marital dynamics are a lot like the dynamics between states as (mis)understood by political realists.

3. If I remember my history correctly, the US and Russia did this during the cold war to convince certain countries to adopt capitalist or communist policies, respectively.